With figures showing more than 10,000 less language ‘A’ level exams being taken last year than at the end of the 90s and a drop in GCSE entry figures for modern languages showing, a St Albans mum is encouraging more school children to get involved in a student exchange programme.
Jo MacGregor, of Fleetville, originally found out about another privately arranged programme whilst listening to a radio show. The programme involved her daughter Abby going to live with a Spanish family for six months with the Spanish student then living with her family in the UK for the same time.
At the time Abby was attending St Albans High School and was in Year 9, aged 13. Jo approached the school which gave her the go ahead, as Abby would be attending school full time in Spain.
Abby said: “After I was selected and received pictures of the home in Spain and the family I would be living with I was really excited to be going, I didn’t really think about the time I’d be away because it was something completely new I was doing that no-one else I knew had done. It felt like an adventure, but an entirely safe one.”
At the time she had only done one year of Spanish at school. Abby’s exchange partner Iria and her father let her communicate in English for the first week, but after a couple of days she was thrown in at the deep end and started school, which she found to be very different from the UK.
“It made me realise really what good facilities we have in UK schools. In Spain there weren’t any non-academic classes and we had all our lessons in one class which was quite old fashioned,” said Abby.
In the evenings the family would help her with basic Spanish words using toddler books and friends at school helped writing her homework down.
After a month and a half Abby said she noticed a huge improvement in her Spanish and by the end of the trip she was thinking and counting in the language. In fact when her grandparents flew back with her she kept answering their questions in fluent Spanish.
Back at school Abby caught up quickly and was able to take and pass her Spanish GCSE a year early, getting an A*. She also noticed it had helped with her French, which before was a B-C grade, but she also got an A* for her GCSE.
But Abby added the benefits weren’t just academic.
“I got to experience a different culture, celebrating Christmas and New Year differently, experiencing a different sense of humour and different family life. I l learnt to play volleyball and the piano and, although I wasn’t too good and experienced new food, a new school system and even got to go skiing on their school trip. I got so much out of it and want to do more new things in the future,” she said.
And Jo said: “I absolutely made the right decision encouraging her to go despite missing her terribly. We met the family first and the selection process is so thorough so I never doubted she would be well cared for and was in regular contact with the parents.”
The school also supported the programme. Maureen Harcourt, Head of House, said: “In Spain, Abby thrived and as well as becoming fluent in the language she made lots of good friends and loved the independence and freedom of the experience. On retuning, she was very conscientious about making up missed work and was supported in this, not only by the school but also, by her family who supplied extra tuition where necessary.
“Socially, Abby had no problems fitting back into her former friendship groups and school routine. Abby’s Spanish exchange was delightful and an absolute asset. She joined in lessons with enthusiasm and threw herself into extra-curricular activities, also competing in sports day. Some of the girls in Abby’s year became very friendly with her exchange and have kept in contact and have even been to Spain to visit.
“I would definitely recommend it to other students. The school also benefits from the exchange students who have much to contribute not only in lessons but also in extra-curricular and social activities.”
Now Jo is the UK rep for a new exchange programme, Adolesco, which does the same thing for nine to 17 year olds without having to commit to six months and runs placements from three weeks to three months; meaning students can take the exchanges in school holidays if they wish to.
For more information on Adolesco go to: www.adolesco.org